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Editorial: An open letter to the Prime Minister

Fri 9 Nov 2012 In: Features

Image: TV3 The Rt. Hon. John Key Prime Minister, Parliament. Dear Mr Key, Today I am wearing a gay red shirt. My shirt, like many others worn today, primarily represents a question to you. What planet, Mr Key, are you on? Planet Homophobia or Planet Inclusiveness. All your life, in common usage 'gay' has meant either of two things, and increasingly only one. Yes, its less common, more historical, usage means something like 'light, bright and happy.' But primarily it's a gentler word than 'male homosexual' and that is primarily what it has meant all your life. In recent decades it has come to include female homosexual and trans person. For homosexuals and transpeople it evolved from a code word into a less clinical identifier than the inhumane words such as 'invert' which the medical profession had historically foisted on us. 'Gay' then became a word publicly suffused with our pride in ourselves. That was how 'gay' meaning homosexual entered into the general vocabulary. As social attitudes in places such as New Zealand and parts of the USA became less censorious 'gay' was well on the way to becoming just another noun or adjective such as 'maori' or 'Christian.' This was too much for some folk. To them gay had to mean sexually perverted, unpleasant, unacceptable, odious, unwanted or unwarranted. Those who actively and overtly despise gay people started to use it as an insult, a putdown. And, particularly amongst young people, it caught on as a really cool putdown. Just when gays were making convincing progress shaking off approbation and repression, those who despise us had upped the ante. They quietly made our very identity into an insult. This usage spread like wildfire through the bullying schoolyards of the USA into our own youth culture and now all the way to you, our Prime Minister. Worse still, you seem to see nothing wrong in putting us down. So we are "weird" huh Mr Key? Thanks for that. In your ham-fisted explanation you said that "gay" now means "weird" to you. In that or other negative contexts, generally in the phrase 'that's so gay,' it is a put down, likening the thing or action to be denigrated to gay people who are by implication and 'common understanding' also to be put down or denigrated. Any other reading of the genesis of this kind of negative use of the word gay is just bullshit. Even the Broadcasting Standards Authority acknowledges that public use of 'so gay' is a homophobic putdown, though like you it also in a recent statement sees no specific harm in that! This whole business is yet another example of the fact that as hard as you and your fellow National politicians try to present yourselves as liberal and tolerant you are too often actually steeped in the culture of homophobia, whether you understand that or not. How otherwise to understand your deputy Bill English's thunderous threats against gay people (specifically some years ago when we revealed his continuing inaction around a son who was regularly posting vitriolic anti-gay stuff on the internet. Or erstwhile pro-gay Maggie Barry's recently demeaning our trans brothers and sisters by using a fellow MP's concern for trans issues as a weapon against her in Parliament. And now putting up a cowardly wall of silence without so much as an acknowledgment, let alone an apology. Or Auckland Central MP Nickki Kaye's distasteful leaping to defend you following the outrage over your 'so gay' slur when she has been willing to call a spade a spade on other issues where she is at variance with her party or fellow MPs. Or National's only openly gay MP Chris Finlayson voting against equal status for gays like himself when the Marriage Equality Bill first came before the house. Or National MP Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi's blatant lie to members of Tongan churches, telling them the majority of National MPs voted against that bill, thus encouraging their cultural homophobia. Perhaps you yourself are reacting to the snide gay epithets recently directed at you by the leader of the Conservative Party? If so, dumping your own personal or political unease onto others is callow, at best. I've said it before but I'll say it again: your party seems to be the natural political home for homophobia, whether you like it, or understand it, or want it, or not. From the lowliest newbie MPs right up to yourself your party continues to be steeped in the subtle homophobia of the street, the bar and the schoolyard. Overt homophobia is easy to purge from your public image. Step one: remind yourself that you know some quite nice gay people. Step two: turn up for a few photo ops. Step three: vote for something anti-discriminatory when it seems politically low-risk to do so. But the subtle and harder to overcome homophobia of language and attitude does great damage too. It tells overt homophobes they are on the right track. It tells below the radar homophobes that the speaker is one of them and they are not as increasingly isolated as they had suspected. And it is heard by every gay person in the country who either gets pissed off or sighs in resignation as he or she receives another cut in the death of a thousand homophobic cuts. Several months ago a young man hung himself in a forest outside Auckland. He could not bear the pressure of family denigration of his homosexuality or the stigma of being HIV-positive. He struggled to take pride, gay pride, in himself but it had been knocked out of him. He took his own life. How bleak does a person's lack of self-esteem have to be to do that? How many cuts does it take before any gay person who is slashed by the thousands of anti-gay cuts of abuse and denigration and sniggering finally gives up? One of those cuts now has your name beside it Mr Key. That is what you have bought into. Using phrases and keeping company with people who thoughtlessly or even intentionally deliver a stream of deadly little cuts into the psyche of vulnerable gays like the boy who hung himself. Phrases and actions that dogwhistle to overt homophobes like the young man's family that they are right to demean and degrade even their own son. Right to hound him, literally, to death. Or do you just have further to evolve, politically and personally, than you thought when it comes to being truly a gay-friendly MP? If you return to the Big Gay Out for another photo op in a few months' time you will be saluted and respected as Prime Minister by generally openly proud and confident gay people. As your predecessors have also been. That's a given. But as a man who has clearly (but hopefully unintentionally) so easily bought into the homophobia of the street and the schoolyard you might hear more than a few hisses from amongst the colourful photo op-perfect crowd. Jay Bennie Editor, PS: If this letter has given you serious pause for thought please also discuss the matter with the young family member who I understand also uses denigration of us gay people to denigrate things generally.The one you reportedly picked it up from. If you are as supportive as you so glibly say of gay people and issues how about encouraging him to be likewise? Please try to turn him away from the 'cool' cultural homophobia which targets and kills young gay people. Jay Bennie - 9th November 2012

Credit: Jay Bennie

First published: Friday, 9th November 2012 - 7:12am

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